Helena Grdadolnik talks to Rosemary Heather
This interview is part of a series, commissioned by Markham Public Art on the occasion of their virtual public art summit Becoming Public Art: Working Models & Case Studies for Art in Public.
In What is a Public Art Master Plan? Helena Grdadolnik talks to Rosemary Heather about her work with Markham to make a Public Art Master Plan for the city, providing insight into this complex undertaking and what role the public plays in the process.
Helena Grdadolnik is a Director at WORKSHOP Architecture, where she leads the studio’s urban design and cultural projects. In this interview, Grdadolnik talks about her work with Markham to draw up a Public Art Master Plan for the city, a process that involves extensive consultation with a range of stakeholders—including artists, the public, city officials and staff, and private developers. The Master Plan was approved in the Fall of 2019, with the followup Implementation Plan approved this past Winter. How public art gets made and who, in addition to the artist, makes decisions about where it gets built and the form it takes is often an opaque process. With experience that includes creating Public Art Master Plans for the cities of Kingston and Newmarket, Grdadolnik provides insight into this complex undertaking and what role the public can play in the process.
What is a Public Art Master Plan?
I think when people hear “Public Art Master Plan” they think members of the public would really be involved in its development—and you do want that input and feedback on the vision for the Public Art Master Plan. But really so much is tied to details of how a City works. There are three things in most Master Plans—they differ from one city to another—but basically they are: the goals of the program itself where public input is important, then there’s the rules which, in City terms, are usually called policies, and there are the processes, like how things work in the city, who does what, who’s responsible for what, where the money comes from, all that. So when you look through this kind of document, although it has a lot of nice pictures and diagrams, a lot of it is just kind of “city speak”—stuff the City needs to figure out for how it’s going to run the program that crosses a lot of different departments. The task is to try to ensure quality and integrity in the decision-making process and make sure that who they’re hiring is a professional artist who may challenge ways of thinking, not someone who is just decorating the landscape.
So much of a Public Art Master Plan is inaccessible, or hard to understand because it involves the nitty-gritty of City work. One thing a master plan can do is set locations and budgets for a work. It’s disappointing when a master plan stops there—e.g., x marks the spot in five different locations in the city, and we’re going to spend $200,000 here and $1,000,000 there—because I think that really limits the artistic process if you make all these decisions before you get an artist involved. In Markham, people in the city have helped us decide those locations. Another thing is to set out the main goals—like, what is the city trying to do, why even have public art? Also, you always have to figure out where the money’s going to come from for a program, especially in the first couple of years, otherwise it’s not going to happen.
You might have heard of the Percent for Art Program? This stipulates that if you build a new building, one percent of the budget of that project is invested in an artwork on that site. Now, it could be that a good artwork gets made, but it also means that the work has to be in the location of a new building. It tends to be that new artworks appear in these locations where there is all this new development, and not necessarily where artists and community members might want to see new works.
The typical process that many cities follow is to hire an artist through an open call asking for examples of their previous work. From there, three to five artists are shortlisted. At that point, the artists are each required to work out in detail a proposal for an artwork without getting a chance to have any meaningful dialogue with the communities, including with the public art curator for the City, and then one of the proposals is selected by a jury.
This process is codified in a lot of City’s master plans as the only way to commission art. We have tried to move away from that and bring in more options for how to work with artists that better follow artistic practice and give opportunity to involve members of the public. Sometimes, yes it might be that open call, but other times it could be a curated process. In some cases, its by invitation because it’s a very specific project. Other times, it could be you’re sending out a call where artists can propose what they’d like to do and where. I think Vancouver has a good example of that, with their artist-initiated program.
Can you describe who the Public Art Master Plan is for?
Ultimately, it should be for the people who live, work and go to school in Markham. That’s the ultimate goal of any of these City plans. It’s not for the politicians, it’s not for the people who work for the City and it’s not for the artists. In some ways, it should support quality art and fair practices, so it is for artists in some ways, but it really ultimately is for the people; particularly, the Plan’s vision says local residents and visitors. So if you work in Markham but you live in Toronto, this plan should still work for you because it’s making places that are interesting for you to go to, and which are free to see. At the same time, to make quality artworks, we need to make it work for artists and the way they work. I think many plans miss this element of understanding how artists work. That said, it is a different type of process for making a public art piece than in a gallery setting, different types of people will look at your work every day on their way to work, for instance. At the same time, why bother having a public art program if you have this process that just makes the resulting art super safe and you don’t take any risks and you don’t challenge people at all, and it’s just decorative?
Why would it be less desirable to have a public artwork that is just decorative?
In terms of public art, do you want it to make you think? And do you want it to be more than a one liner of, say, oh that looks pretty. You don’t need artists involved to make something that’s prettier or eye catching. You can do that in other ways, whether that’s through landscaping, or whether that’s through building design, or the decoration on the outside of the building. The purpose of having an artist is to make you think a bit differently, to make you notice things. There’s a term in public art called “plop art”, which has a negative connotation, and which is this idea of just putting a statue on the corner of a building site and calling it a day. It is put there with no attachment to the community, it doesn’t really talk about anything about the site, you could have picked it out of a catalogue and then placed it there. I personally go back and forth on whether we should expect public art to be a more socially engaged process? Not always. But you need different ways to engage with how artists work if you’re going to have a program that is not just about making visually appealing work. I think there’s nothing wrong with something that is visually appealing, but it’s not the only aim. If you have a lot of public art in the city, you’re not going to always love every piece, but hopefully you love some of them and they go beyond just looking good in an Instagram photo. And maybe some of them you don’t like at first, but then they grow on you over time.
Part of the goal of a Master Plan is to get urban planners, developers, artists, elected officials and staff to be in alignment on the role public art can play in a city. Did you have input from any or all of these stakeholders when making your Master Plan?
Yes. With a Master Plan, I might have personal ideas of what I think is best but my job is to work with all these different departments and stakeholders and listen and try to make sure that we are making a plan that’s flexible and responds to the place. We had engaged the local developers that play a major role in development in the city, and the City’s urban planners, public realm and facilities staff were part of that process. It can be really hard because this document needs to balance and create consensus between a multitude of stakeholders. Then we also need to bring the public into moulding the plan’s vision and that can be challenging. But we did weave all of those voices and then try to make a workable plan. The first chapter in the Master Plan is the public art vision, which describes what the vision is, I’m reading: “Innovative Public Art will highlight the city’s unique characteristics and create new experiences and destinations through which local residents and visitors can engage with each other and the rich surroundings in Markham.”
Basically we are saying that the public art will be specific to the city and will give people new experiences. Then you get into objectives, and you always have trouble crafting the exact wording to speak to so many different perspectives. Many of these professionals know planning policy and understand the ramifications of a single sentence in an official plan that could really make a difference to what is asked from a developer. We had a public workshop and we got people to literally cross out the words in the first draft that they didn’t like and then we took the next draft to a public art advisory committee, which is mostly made up of residents in Markham, some of whom have art knowledge and some of whom don’t. They again picked through words and we went through a few more revisions. The vision sentence is always going to be aspirational and hard to pin down. The objectives need to get more tangible, (and again, I’m reading) to: “Inspire people to live in, work in, visit and invest in Markham; Celebrate the diverse cultures and heritage in Markham from multiple points of view; and Connect residents to Markham’s built and natural environment.” The plan states that every public art project needs to meet at least two of these objectives—to inspire, celebrate or connect. A work is not going to do all of these things every time; every piece of public art does not need to celebrate the diverse cultures of Markham, for instance. If you try to say it has to do all of these things every time you are getting to a weird point where the work does nothing. We can judge what an artist is developing based on these three things, but they don’t have to hit every point in every work.
The last element in the Master Plan vision is the Guiding Principles. There are seven of them and that’s where you make sure, for instance, that there’s quality control. One of these is “artistic excellence and innovation”. You want to make sure that you’re not getting just any artists, but the best artists. Another one is “protecting artist integrity, copyright and fair pay”, which is needed to protect artists’ interests. This is needed because when budgets get tight, like they are right now, the City might be tempted to say “Well, we are using this artist we found who will do it for free”. Instead of paying an artist that is really well-respected, we’re going to have this other person. So 1) that’s not meeting artistic excellence, and 2) it’s not fairly compensating artists for their work. Other points of quality control are “meeting accessibility standards” or “geographic reach”—making sure that public artworks are not only located downtown. Those are the elements in the Master Plan that are probably the easiest for people to understand who are not in the art world or in the City policy world. This means that when a person is starting in the Public Art Curator position and starting a project with staff from other departments, it makes sure that there are standards and objectives that can be referred to, without this detail getting lost in a 50-page document.
Did you have artist input on the plan?
Yes. We worked with the York Region Arts Council and the Markham Arts Council. They had helped us circulate the invite to a public event, as well as working through the public art advisory. As well, we did get input from artists from Markham, but I would say the number of artists we spoke to wasn’t that large. I would say, it could be better. As part of our public workshop, we had local artists and other art patrons on a panel to talk about their perspective and give their thoughts as well as an artist who has worked a lot in public art and was commissioned for a piece in Toogood Pond Park, by Mary Anne Barkhouse. She gave a great presentation in which she just talks about her perspective working on these projects, including what a city gets wrong in the process and how they could improve. There were a lot of people who work in city departments in the audience, so I think for them this was really helpful. So we had some artists that were engaged, though I would say that’s where generally Master Plans could be better but, as I said, the plan is not for artists, so engaging them is not the primary focus. We were also really lucky to be working with the Varley Art Gallery, based in Markham, and Yan Wu, Markham’s Public Art Curator. They already work with artists and have a lot of processes in place for working with and commissioning artists.
In a talk you gave you defined the goal of public art as “Letting you know that you’re in Markham” I love this idea. Another way to say it is: You’re creating landmarks. Do you strategize in this way so that you have a project that’s created at such a scale that it is iconic for the city?
No, every public art project doesn’t have to be iconic, every project doesn’t need to do the same thing. At the same time, the City of Markham is pursuing a “gateway strategy” that means, for instance, you are driving on the highway and how do you know you’ve gotten to Markham? Their thinking is that public art is one of the ways that you can make this kind of gateway. The easiest way doesn’t involve art, you could just literally make a big sign that says “Markham”. So you could consciously have a public art project where part of the stated goal is that the work is a kind of signpost. But I don’t think every project has to do this and I do think that some projects can do this in a subtler way, or that they aren’t intended as a symbol of a place, but become this over time. Ken Lum’s East Van sculpture, for instance, is a place maker that was a result of Vancouver’s artist-initiated public art program. The program wasn’t saying “We want a marker for East Vancouver, can you make one?” Ken Lum said he wanted to make a marker for East Vancouver and he decided where to put it. With a lot of other pieces, it’s the other way around. I think of Angel of the North in Northern England at the edge of Newcastle, which is this Antony Gormley piece that was intentional in making a landmark. That’s one thing you could do but there are other projects that I like that are just kind of quiet and almost hidden and small that maybe make you stop and notice something, redirect your attention to look on the ground. I personally tend to be less interested in the iconic pieces. I think they’re easier to conceive but don’t always have the same level of depth or staying power.
Recent trends are favouring more temporary works or digital screen based works. In your plan, do you make a recommendation for a balance between the two types, more traditional and the latter, and do you think temporary events like Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, for instance, could provide a model for Markham?
In the Master Plan, we included a few relevant case studies from similar-sized cities to get people to visualize what could actually happen within a public art program. Surrey B.C. has a lot of similarities to Markham. It’s a suburban community that is rapidly urbanizing but is close to a larger urban centre (in this case Vancouver) and it has a huge immigrant population who bring a different vision to the place and lots of good food. Surrey Urban Screens, for example, is a large screen on the side of a community centre featuring a rotating program of curated digital artworks. That was one suggestion we had for Markham as it bills itself as a “high tech capital”. The City has a lot of high-tech companies located there, which I hadn’t known before this project. So that was a question: Could they build on that branding? There were also many people we heard from living in the villages in Markham, who tend to want to mark the nineteenth century colonial heritage of the place. And we wanted to make sure that there’s some balance that that’s not the only thing that gets marked. We heard from other community members that they wanted to diversify the stories that are being told. And to tell the other stories that aren’t being told. There are segments that were very focussed on putting up monuments to the location’s heritage and see public art as only putting up these monuments. We also heard from people who were interested in looking at other aspects of the city. An example is the Rouge National Urban Park, it goes partially through Markham. National Park staff and non-profit Park People came to our meetings and brought the idea that, as the Trail Network is not complete, how do you make people know about the Park and when you are in it? Can you do something different that doesn’t involve a monument? In the Master Plan, we used the Münster Sculpture Project as a case study example. Could you have an event, like Münster, that would build up a program of public art overtime, that was more focussed on the wider national or international arts community coming to the place, but that also would be of interest to the local population and leave a legacy?
Thinking about the programming that Markham did over the summer, in a project called Delimit, people were invited to make a proposal for hypothetical artworks for sites in Markham, chosen partly by the public and partly by the curatorial team. There was no expectation that these would get built, which gave participants licence to dream big. Regardless, is there any chance that any of those projects could get made?
I was involved in the jury. Yes, some could be built, but I don’t think they will be. I’m probably not the right person to ask, and it wasn’t the intention that the City moves ahead with any of the projects. But I think the program was helpful, a lot of people have an idea about what public art looks like and this program had artists show people what different types of projects could look like, and the way artists think when considering a site. I think it was helpful in that respect, but I don’t think any of them went through a feasibility study determining if they could work on a site. For instance, is there a manhole underneath or will the proposed connections harm a healthy tree? To make artwork in public spaces there is a lot to consider. Many of the proposals would be doable, like the idea for temporary projections onto the Town Hall, but others would need more development and changes to make them work. There was a nice mix of artwork proposed, and I feel if you showed people the range that everyone would find one that they would really like, and also other things that they didn’t or that weren’t what they’re used to.
You’ve worked on the Public Art Master Plan for a number of cities, including Kingston, and Newmarket, what was different about Markham compared to these other jobs?
I would say the biggest difference is that Markham has someone, Yan Wu, who is the City’s Public Art Curator, and who is also working meaningfully in the art world. I think that’s really helpful for a real understanding and grounding in not just City processes but also art-making practices. An individual in that role can really be key to connecting all the different players and communities that have to be involved in a public art project. I think that really was helpful in the process of going through the Public Art Master Plan and also for what happens next and how the program is implemented. The other thing is that Markham is a really interesting mix of small-town, heritage sites and newly developed urban form. It has a really unique mix and differs in how people expect a suburban city to operate when compared with some of the other GTA cities around it, of a similar size. This creates interesting prospects for its future, which is why it’s important to make sure that the Master Plan makes recommendations to accommodate those different voices and perspectives.
Interview conducted by Rosemary Heather on September 24, 2020 as part of Becoming Public Art: Working Models and Case Studies for Art in Public, a nine-week virtual summit presented by the City of Markham in partnership with ART+PUBLIC UnLtd. Framed by current discussions happening at the intersection of contemporary art, public realm issues and urbanism, the summit features working models and case studies that address the challenges and opportunities faced by those working in this constantly evolving field.